I have long dreamt of seeing the famous formations of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. The National Geographic images that I came across as a young boy enthralled me. Alas, Carlsbad is a long way from everything including the backwoods of Tennessee where I grew up. Like one of the rangers at Carlsbad said, “people don’t find their way to Carlsbad Caverns accidentally.” It is hidden in a corner of the country that is surrounded by harsh desert. However, it is a magical place that is well worth the effort. This is the Carlsbad Caverns guide to the main cavern known as the Big Room and the Natural Entrance trail that leads there.
The Wonders of Carlsbad Caverns
Carlsbad Caverns is unlike any other cave system I have ever ventured into. The natural wonders are so abundant that no amount of photography can ever express the countless number of cave popcorn, soda straws, flowstone, rimstones, stalagmites, stalagtites, columns… the list goes on in perpetude. Carlsbad Caverns is the natural world’s art museum and it has works on display that defy what human’s thought was possible in the natural world. Ask a ranger here about some abnormal formation and usually the answer is “micro-organisms.” That seems to be the park’s current catchall for “we don’t really know.”
Research and Discover in Carlsbad’s Cave System
That isn’t to say that the park hasn’t made massive strides in understanding the cave system in the caverns relatively short history with modern man. The park has made huge inroads in understanding how the cave was formed and how long it takes for cave formations to grow. The main cave system at Carlsbad Caverns National Park is one amongst hundreds of caves in the Guadalupe Mountain Range. Most of which are research caves that are dedicated to understanding the geology and life found within the caves. Micro organisms have been discovered in these caves that defy what humans thought life could look like. Researchers have found organisms that are immune to all known vaccines and others that appear to feed on cancer cells. So when the go-to answer is micro-organisms, it isn’t without merit.
The Bat Flight
The Bat Flight is another of Carlsbad Caverns many natural wonders. During the summer months up to a million Brazilian free-tailed bats emerge from the massive cavern’s Natural Entrance in a swirling ball of life. This is in fact how the cave was discovered by modern humans.
It was in 1898 that a young 16-year old ranch-hand named Jim White saw a black torrent and thought that it looked like an odd smoke. He went to inspect it thinking it was a fire. Upon arriving at the cave’s opening and discovering the bats, he knew that with that much life emerging from the darkness there must be a massive cavern hidden below. He tried to convince others of the importance of the cave’s exploration but for almost 17 years Jim White was nearly the only person crawling around the cave’s dark corridors. He ventured into the blackness and discovered all the areas that are now a part of the Natural Entrance and Big Room trails.
The Journey to National Park Status
Around 1915, Jim convinced a photographer to enter the caves with him as a way of making money from the images. Jim was the original Carlsbad Caverns guide. By 1923 those images had found their way into the New York Times. As a result of its growing fame the cave was decreed a National Monument later that year. Seven years later it found more protection and funding when Congress voted to make it a National Park.
Missteps by the Park Service
The National Park’s Service has had a bumpy history with the main Carlsbad Cavern and a few of the other caves inside the park’s boundary. They have done a fairly good job since day one of policing visitation to ensure that no souvenir hunters leave with a piece of the cavern. However, there have been other missteps by the parks service.
The first priority of the park was to create a trail into the cave. Then, to make visitation even easier, an elevator was installed allowing visitors to quickly travel to an area adjacent to the Big Room, 750’ below the surface. The elevator shaft was also used for cooling the visitor center above. The caves cool air made it so no air conditioning units were needed. This, however, had the negative side effect of drying out the cavern which changed the natural conditions of the cave.
A Lunch Room and a Parking Lot
Another big mistake was building a lunch room in the cave that saw a massive amount of food being transported into the cave daily. A less obvious mistake was having the parking lot directly above the cave. The fluids from thousands of vehicles seeped into the cave 750’ below discoloring some of the formations.
The Park Service Efforts to Mitigate Impact Today
Today the elevators are on turnstiles to limit the amount of air transfer through the elevator’s shaft. The visitor center has a proper air conditioning unit. The parking lot was recently reconstructed with a catch basin underneath that allows water to pass through but contains any potential contaminants. The lunch room inside the cave has been converted into a rest area. It has bathrooms and the old counters are used to sell merchandise.
The main pathways into the cave and through it are paved with handrails. This is meant to keep visitors safe and safely away from the formations. Infrared cameras have been installed along the paths to police the caverns. While I don’t love the obvious man made path and handrails I do understand the need for them. The cavern is open to the public. The general public is mostly uneducated upon their arrival about proper reverence for the fragile state of the caverns. They still need a way of seeing this natural wonder with the least amount of risk to the cavern. On a whole I believe the park does a good job of balancing the need for access with preservation.
Carlsbad Caverns Guide to the Natural Entrance Trail
The Natural Entrance Trail guides visitors into the depths of Carlsbad cavern. The path is paved but steep. If you are up for it, it should not be missed. As I ventured deeper into the earth along the manmade path I was left wondering how something further in could be considered the “Big Room.” The trail switchbacks into the depths of the earth before straightening out and looking into the dark abyss of Bat Cave. This is where the Brazilian free-tailed bat colony lives. No one is allowed to venture into Bat Cave. Here at nearly 200′ below the surface the path does an about face and heads back towards the natural entrance before taking a left into a smaller section of the cave and leaving the twilight zone.
The First Signs of the Hidden Wonders
The smaller cave section connecting the first cavern with the second is still very wide but the ceiling is much lower. It is high enough to easily walk through standing up straight. It is also very dark and could be a bit unnerving for someone who hasn’t spent much time underground. Emerging from this section there is the first cave columns with a pool of water at the base. This area is known as the Devil’s Spring and it is the first glimpse of the wonders that are hidden deep inside this cave system.
The Second Chamber
Once past the Devil’s Spring the path switchbacks steeply through the section known as the Devil’s Den. This is all a part of a massive second chamber. It is a steep descent that is rough on the knees to the very bottom of this chamber. The path meanders through several large stalagmites on the way down. There are also several unique looking chandelier formations clinging to the roof far above. Iceberg Rock, a massive bolder estimated to weigh 200,000 tons that broke away from the ceiling, now lies at the bottom of the second chamber. Looking up from this bolder the ceiling of the cave looks very far away making the massive Iceberg Rock look like a tiny pebble in this grand cavern.
The Final Descent into Carlsbad Caverns
Leaving the second chamber we followed the path deeper into the earth and through another set of tighter passageways skirting past the King’s Palace area. The King’s Palace is one of the guided sections of the cave with some unique hidden formations. After passing the King’s Palace turnoff we hiked up a small hill and then past the Boneyard before arriving at the intersection with the path that leads from the elevators into the Big Room.
Lighting on the Natural Entrance Trail
The 1.25-mile path from the Natural Entrance to the intersection is perfectly lit. In comparison to most tourist caves there is very little light. The modern lighting is just enough to see the major cave formations on the way down and have enough light to safely traverse the steep descent. Once in the Big Room this somewhat changes.
Carlsbad Caverns Guide to the Big Room
The lighting in the Big Room feels much more overwhelming. It still feels like a cave and the lighting is very intentional, highlighting all the major formations. The increase in the amount of artistic looking formations is staggering and thus more lighting is used.
The Feel of the Big Room
Even with all this manmade lighting the cave still feels like a cave, especially in the early morning prior to the larger number of visitors arriving. The park asks that cave visitors treat the cavern with respect and maintain a low volume of noise. I found that most adults endeavored to try and treat it thusly. Jennifer even commentated on how it felt very much like a library due to this fact. However, children especially young children would break the silence with their cries or non-sensical jabber. I feel like this is a place that young people should experience but not until they are old enough to appreciate this unique environment.
Exploring the Big Room
The park says that the 1.25-mile loop around the Big Room, which has been naturally carved into a giant cross shape, should take a few hours to explore. In reality if you walked it quickly it wouldn’t take half that as it is for the most part very flat. The only real exception is the hike up and over the hill adjacent to the Rock of Ages. All that being said I took hundreds of long exposure images and spent nearly 8 hours on the loop doing so. It is astonishingly beautiful with every nook and cranny of the walls, floor, and ceiling holding wonders to be taken in. I would imagine that most visitors walk the loop much faster.
Conclusion the Carlsbad Caverns Guide
If you only venture under the earth to one cave, Carlsbad Caverns’ Big Room should be it. Those who explore here will be ignited with a desire to explore other caves while simultaneously ruining all other caving experiences as subjecting them to a less-than status. The abundance of formations is overwhelming and if timed right the space is beautifully and eerily quiet. This is an experience that everyone should aspire to have and appreciate what the natural processes of our world can create if given enough time alone in the dark to do so.
Things to Know before You Go
- Cost: There is a $15/person charge for an entrance ticket (good for 3-days). The National Park Pass will get you in for free, but must be presented at the ranger desk with all members of the party present.
- Food: No food is allowed into the cave.
- Drinks: Non-flavored water is the only thing allowed into the cave.
- Photos: Cameras, including flash, and tripods are still allowed in the Big Room and Main Entrance trails. Ranger led tours do not allow tripods.
When to Visit Carlsbad Caverns
- The cave’s temperature fluctuates very little so anytime of year is a good time to venture into the cave.
- Mid-summer is the time to visit if you want to see the Bat Flight at its most impressive. (It will be very hot on the surface.)
- Bats start to return to the cave in late March and leave in late October.
- The Visitor Center opens each day at 8AM and the cave opens at 8:30AM. Closing times vary based on the time of year. Click here for more details.
Other Places to Visit While at Carlsbad Caverns
- Other Caves: There are many guided caves to be explored in the Carlsbad system. They vary in difficulty and availability. I highly recommend the Slaughter Canyon Cave Tour and the Lower Cave Tour. Most tours sell out. I recommend reserving them online a month or two before you plan to visit.
- Rattlesnake Springs: If you are searching for wildlife make sure to check out Rattlesnake Springs. I didn’t see any snakes as the name would suggest but there was an abundance of wildlife in the area. We spotted vultures, wild turkeys, songbirds, owls, deer, and coyotes.
- Guadalupe Mountains National Park: This National Park is located less than an hour’s drive south from the Carlsbad Caverns visitor center. Guadalupe has some amazing desert mountain hiking trails to be conquered including Texas’ highest peak, Guadalupe Peak.
Where to Stay
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park: No campgrounds or lodges.
- Whites City RV Park: Full hook-ups and located at the entrance to the park.
- BLM land: No services available. You must be fully self-contained.
- Chosa Campground – Easy accessibility.
- Fence Canyon – More secluded but the access road is very rocky and steep.
- Mile-10 – Very dusty. If the wind is blowing at all I would not recommend it.
- Whites City Cavern Inn – Nothing special here but it is the only hotel with close proximity to the park.
- Carlsbad City hotels – Closest one is 22-miles from the Carlsbad Visitor Center where all cave tours start.